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Dec 30

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“Ondine’s Curse” by Katherine Mankiller

She knew the signs of drowning; she’d seen it many times. Mouth below the waterline, arms pressing the body up out of the water for a breath. He didn’t cry out for help, but then again, they never did. Breathing took precedence. He didn’t kick, didn’t thrash. He didn’t have the energy to waste.

She always felt sorry for mortals. So vulnerable, especially in the water. The poor things just couldn’t manage.

As the ship sailed away, oblivious, she swam over to him and lifted him out of the water. He wrapped his arms around her neck, and she headed easily to the nearest shore, a couple of miles away. She found herself thinking of the mothers she’d spotted on ships, carrying their toddlers who clung for dear life. As she kept swimming, he went limp.

It was a small island, and as the water became shallow, she transformed her tail into legs and dragged him up on shore. It was so very difficult; she was always surprised by how heavy things were on land. Out of the water, it was hot and dry. It even smelled dry.

Up on the beach, he coughed up water. She held him and patted his back as he spat seawater onto the shore. He barely seemed aware of her, of anything really, but that was how it was with her previous rescues, too. And then he slept, and she watched over him until the moon was high in the sky. And then she slept, too, on the dry gritty sand.

When she woke up the next morning, he’d draped his shirt over her. Silly mortals and their nudity taboos. When she met his eye he blushed and looked away, and she pulled the shirt over her head. It was fairly nice material, finely woven.

“Decent now?” he asked.

“More or less,” she said.

He glanced over at her, sidelong, looking up at her under his lashes. “Did you carry me to shore, or did I dream it?”

She just smiled. “Is there anything to eat?”

He shrugged and looked around. “I’m more worried about water.”

She smirked.

“Drinking water,” he said.

She cocked her head, then looked around, sniffing. There. She could smell fresh water up the hill. She stood and walked.

“Where are you going?” he asked. He followed her.

Water, definitely. Fresh water. Flowing. She could sense it. “I think I hear something.” She scrambled up a rocky sandy hill, the ground hard under her bare feet. How did humans get used to it?

Behind her, he swore. She glanced back. He was barefoot, too.

“Do you have a name?” she asked.

“Lawrence,” he said. “Lawrence Fisher.” He bowed smartly.

She eyed him up and down, to his obvious discomfort. Black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, British accent. “You don’t look British.”

“My mother was Italian,” he said.

“But you’re not.”

“No, milady,” he said. “I’m as British as brown beer. My father sent me to Eton. I’ve only recently returned to Napoli, to seek my fortune.”

She resisted the urge to snort—look how well that had turned out—and headed back up the hill.

“What about you, milady? Will you honor me with your name?”

She turned and cocked her head at him for a moment. Finally, she said, “Ondine.”

“Is that your Christian or given name?” He cocked his head back at her and smiled a sly, flirtatious little smile.

She felt her smile broaden. “Yes.”

He laughed. “As you wish, Milady Ondine.”

She continued up the hill. There was a stream, and the types of trees and such that grew in fresh water stretching up further past the hill. He rushed towards it, and then stood there, expectant.

“Ladies first.”

“I’m not thirsty,” she said.

He raised an eyebrow, and she sighed and drank out of her cupped hands. Then he came forward and drank, over and over. She thought he would never be done of drinking. She would have thought that he’d had enough of water bobbing in the ocean, but apparently not.

When he’d finally drank his fill, he sat down next to the stream and looked up at her. “I don’t suppose you know where we could find food?”

She resisted the urge to laugh. She could catch enough food for them both easily in the ocean. “What, you mean like sandwiches and tea? Little cakes, perhaps?”

He smiled. “You’re quite odd,” he said.

She just smiled back at him.

“Where do you come from?” he asked. “You don’t look British, either.”

“Somewhere far away,” she said.

“Perhaps you’re the empress of China,” he said. He was teasing, but it was gentle teasing.

She laughed, but didn’t say anything. She supposed she could tell him that in ancient times she’d been worshipped as a water nymph, that when people stopped believing she moved to the ocean and lived in Greek shipwrecks because the amphorae made her feel at home. She could tell him she was more powerful than any empress. She could tell him anything, but she knew that what he’d believe was that she was a shipwrecked girl, possibly from the Caribbean or someplace equally exotic.

Well. The ocean would be plenty exotic to the likes of him.

He shook his head. “Quite odd, indeed. I think I spotted crabs on the beach. We could build a fire, perhaps.”

They made their way back down the hill, and he started walking up and down the beach lifting rocks. While he was gone, she gathered fallen branches and piled them up on the beach, then whispered, “Exure!” The wood burst into flame.

Lawrence returned bare-chested with an undershirt full of crabs. He was really quite attractive for a mortal. He said, “How did you do that?”

“A girl needs to have some secrets,” she said.

He shrugged and speared a crab on a sharp stick. It kicked and struggled as he thrust it into the fire. If crabs made noise it would have been screaming; its little square mouth opened in agony as it tried to writhe off the stick.

She felt terribly sorry for it, but not sorry enough to deny Lawrence his dinner. Besides, she was hungry, too. So she pulled a crab out of his undershirt and speared it lengthwise, in hopes of killing it before cooking it. It didn’t struggle, so at the very least she damaged its brain, such as it was.

He cocked his head at her, but said nothing. They sat in companionable silence cooking their crabs. Then they cracked the shells between rocks and ate. It was a messy dinner, but delicious. Lawrence ate two crabs. She only ate the one.

After dinner, he lay back and looked up at the sky. “What manner of lady are you, Ondine?”

She knew what he wanted to hear. What type of people she came from, whether she was a gentlewoman. Whether and where she’d gone to school. How she’d come to end up naked in the ocean.

Mortals.

“I’m a good swimmer,” she said. She lay down and looked at the sky, too.

They lay there in silence until Lawrence started to snore.

#

Lawrence had to admit, it wasn’t every day a man woke up on a beach with a nude woman. But he supposed it wasn’t every day that a man woke up alive after being thrown overboard. Estelle had said she was a widow; how was he to know that her husband was not only alive but on the boat with them? He was lucky to be alive.

It was hardly his fault, either. He blamed his father. His father had withdrawn all support after he graduated Eton, as if that was enough for a young man to make his way in the world. Well, clearly Estelle had been a bad idea. He should have stuck with Vanessa. Vanessa might be older than Estelle, but she was much more respectable. If he’d stuck with Vanessa, he never would have ended up stranded.

As for Ondine, she was lovely, but he couldn’t place whether she had money or not. In fact, he couldn’t place her at all: her country of origin, whether she was noble or common, what manner of resources she might have off this island. It was a bit disturbing, to tell the truth. A pity, really; he’d much prefer a young pretty fair-haired girl to a lonely widow, but unless she had resources . . .

Ondine’s hair lay spread out around her on the beach, and her shapely legs were exposed below his shirt. It really wasn’t decent. She didn’t seem embarrassed, either. He wondered briefly if she was a girl who hired out for morally questionable things. She didn’t seem lewd, though. It was more like she was too innocent to realize she should cover her legs. Perhaps she had never been exposed to the more unpleasant side of life.

She must have realized he was watching her because her eyes met his. He wasn’t used to women who made eye contact. Her eyes were deep blue, and full of intelligence. What was she? Had she been raised by pirates, or something equally lurid?

“What does your father do?” Lawrence asked.

Ondine just laughed at him and stood up to walk along the beach. She waded into the water, and sat with the water halfway up her back.

His shirt would likely be transparent when she got out. He would see everything.

Embarrassed, he headed back up the hill to the spring and drank some more water. This was a fine mess. Why couldn’t he have been one of his father’s legitimate children? He was the oldest, so he could have been a future baron. Instead, he was reduced to seducing rich widows.

He supposed he could marry a gentlewoman, if her father was daft enough to let his daughter marry a man without prospects. No, no, he needed a lonely widow. Someone who could make her own foolish decisions without any parental interference.

Ondine was innocent enough that she must have people looking for her. He wondered if they were frantic. He knew no one was frantic over him, except maybe Vanessa. Aside from her, there would be idle curiosity if he never came back at best. And if he did come back, who knew how long that would take? Would he be so old that no woman would want him?

He sat and huffed out a loud breath. A depressing line of thought, that. Most sailors were terrified of being stranded. Being stranded was certainly no great joy, but it was far worse to think he might waste his youth out here alone without any prospects or chance of betterment.

Had Ondine carried him to shore? Maybe she was from the Caribbean. He’d heard that women there were half-wild, swimming in the ocean and such.

That must be it. Her father was likely the governor of some tiny Caribbean colony. Some place with hardly any Europeans in it, full of Negroes and wild Indians. It wasn’t really the station in life he’d been aiming for, but it was better than he had now.

Steady there. He didn’t really know anything. He just had a theory that might fit.

He headed back down the hill to the beach. She was sitting there with sand stuck to her legs. She smiled at him.

It occurred to him that it didn’t matter whether she had money or not. If she had money and he got her with child, she’d have to marry him. And if she didn’t, well, he could still marry Vanessa.

He sat beside her, a bit closer than was proper. “Are you from the Caribbean?”

She smiled, mysterious, and made no attempt to move away. “I’ve been there.”

So her father was a captain of a merchant ship, perhaps? No, no, he must be a colonist. Who would take a girl to a wild place if they weren’t going to stay? A high-ranking military officer, perhaps?

He moved closer, a look of concern on his face. “Do you think your people are worried about you?”

“Of course,” she said, but there was an undertone to the remark that he didn’t quite follow. “Just as I’m sure there are people worried about you back in England. Your parents, I’m sure.”

His father’s wife considered him an embarrassment. Proof of his father’s poor moral character and all that. She’d probably be delighted to think he was dead. “I’m sure.”

He couldn’t tell whether he’d convinced her or not, but he supposed it didn’t matter. “How likely do you think it is that we’ll be rescued?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m not in any hurry, are you?”

He started laughing. “What, are you engaged to a rich old man or something?”

She laughed, too. “No. I was just bored where I was.”

Bored. “What manner of woman are you, Ondine?”

She gave him a flirtatious sidelong glance. “I rule the seas.”

He laughed. “So you’re a pirate queen, then?”

“You’ve figured out my secret.” She giggled. “I’m afraid I lost my sword when I was dragging you to shore. And the parrot got bored and flew back to the ship.”

He moved closer, conspiratorially. Their shoulders were touching now. “Did your people mutiny?”

She snorted. “They wouldn’t dare.”

Lawrence laughed awkwardly.

“So be glad I don’t have my sword, or I’d be robbing you right now.” She wagged her finger at him.

“I haven’t anything for you to take, milady,” he said. “I was thrown overboard after being robbed.” It wasn’t completely untrue; Estelle’s husband Roderick had taken his purse before throwing him over, saying that he’d stolen Roderick’s treasure, after all, and Roderick might as well return the favor.

Bloody bastard.

“But that’s horrible!” Ondine seemed to be very interested in his arms.

He glanced down, where there were finger-shaped bruises on his arms. Roderick had been quite large and imposing, and had had friends. Rather than explaining, he just hung his head.

She waded into the ocean and came out with seaweed, which she wrapped around his bruises.

“Are you a witch, Ondine?”

“My father knows things,” Ondine said. “Things he taught me.”

A ship’s physician, perhaps. He supposed he could ask, but she probably wouldn’t tell him.

And then she kissed him on the nose, and he forgot his questions.

#

Poor Lawrence. Robbed and then thrown overboard to his probable death. Ondine wondered how people could be so horrid, but then she remembered how her father always said that mortals were mysterious creatures, the best and worst all mixed up in them in a great tangle that no one could unwind. He certainly seemed helpless, although she suspected he wouldn’t appreciate her pointing that out.

His eyes had closed as she kissed his nose, and when he opened them they were dazzled. For a moment she remembered what it was to be worshipped as a goddess. She leaned forward and rested her head against his forehead. It was warm, and pleasantly damp from perspiration. His breathing slowed, deepened, but he didn’t make a move. He smelled wonderful, like sex, and he was looking down her shirt.

No. She couldn’t honor him by taking him as a lover. He wouldn’t respect it. Mortals and their ridiculous taboos.

So she smiled at him and pulled away, standing up. “Are you really so eager to be rescued, Lawrence?”

He blushed and looked away. “Not eager, milady. But we can’t live here forever, can we?”

No. She supposed they couldn’t. She’d tire of crabs for dinner, for one thing. “Of course not.”

Ondine walked over to the fire, which was starting to die down, and tossed another branch into the flames. Sparks and smoke leapt up into the air, but they avoided her as a natural enemy. She’d blow a ship off course to come and fetch Lawrence. They’d take him back to Europe and his people, and she’d go home to her father and mother and sisters.

She looked back at Lawrence. He was still sitting motionless where she’d left him, his eyes dilated.

She’d just follow them back to shore and make sure no one tossed him overboard again. There was no point in wasting her effort saving him thus far, after all.

Just not right away.

Instead, she went and caught some fish, chasing them down and stunning them with spells while Lawrence lay on the beach staring up at the sky. She felt very sorry for the fish, flopping and asphyxiating on the sand. It was unnatural for them to die on the dry earth. But she was hungry and so was he, so there she was. She did cast a spell to ease their suffering, at least. When they were dead, she cooked them on a spit over the fire. She usually ate them raw, but didn’t think Lawrence would like that.

Lawrence’s nose twitched, and then he sat up and opened his eyes. “I thought I was dreaming. How did you catch a fish?”

She just smiled.

“You are from the Caribbean, aren’t you?” he asked. “Do tell. I promise, I won’t tell a soul your secret.”

Ondine laughed. “I’m originally from Greece, but I spent some time in the Caribbean, among other places.”

“I knew it!” he said. “What is your father, a ship’s captain? An officer? A governor?”

“Something like that,” she said, and turned the fish.

Lawrence sulked. “Why won’t you tell me? He’s not a pirate, is he?”

She burst out laughing. “No, nothing like that.” The fish was ready, so she handed Lawrence the stick.

“It’s too bad we don’t have plates,” Lawrence said, and took a bite.

After dinner, they lay on the sand side by side while he pointed out constellations to her and told her the old stories. She knew the stories already, having heard them when they were new, but it was interesting to hear how they’d changed over time. It was warm and balmy and smelled like the ocean, and there were gentle breezes and the sounds of palm trees in the wind. His hand reached out and touched hers. It was adorable and shy of him.

She could get used to this all too easily.

#

When Lawrence woke up the next morning, he was alone. And then he saw the ship sailing by.

He scrambled to his feet and shouted and waved. “Here! Over here!” and “Ondine! Ondine! They’ve come to rescue us!” and “Hello! For pity’s sake, hello!” When the rowboat headed towards him he was so happy that he almost cried.

“Ondine!”

The two sailors came up on shore, and one of them, a tall thin fellow, said, “Well, come along, then.”

“Wait!” Lawrence said. “There was a lady! We can’t leave without her.”

“Where is she, then?” the other sailor asked. He was short and stocky, and missing teeth.

Lawrence glanced over at her side of the fire. His shirt was lying there. He walked over and picked it up. “She was wearing this.”

“What?” the stocky sailor asked. “There’s a naked lady wandering about?” The two sailors laughed. It was an ugly sound that made Lawrence’s lip curl. “Come along, then.”

“But . . .”

“People often imagine things when they’re stranded alone,” the thin sailor said. “Keeps you sane, it does.”

“Come along or stay behind,” the stocky sailor said. “It’s your choice.”

“I can’t leave her behind,” Lawrence said.

“We’ll have to carry him,” the thin one said.

“I won’t carry him,” the stocky one said. “If you won’t leave him behind, you can carry him after I knock him out cold.” He cracked his knuckles.

Lawrence put up his hands. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” He looked around and thought maybe it would be safer for Ondine if she didn’t show up naked with these two brutes about.

“Let’s find the naked lady,” the stocky sailor said, and smirked.

They searched for hours, but they never did find Ondine.

#

Ondine watched Lawrence’s protests and struggle, and saw the men search for her. His concern was very sweet, if unnecessary. Her hair floated around her like seaweed as she followed the rowboat to the ship. How slowly these mortals rowed!

The rowboat was pulled up onto the ship, and she swam up and flattened herself against the prow, like one of the carved figures above. It took little effort to cling to the front of the ship with the water pressing her back against the prow, just a small amount magic sufficed. She only needed to be aware enough of her surroundings to notice if someone was thrown overboard, after all.

After dark, she rose up above the waterline and looked up at the ship. She wondered where Lawrence was, if they’d given him some place to sleep or if he was lying on the deck looking at the stars. She thought she heard someone sobbing up on the deck, but there was no way to tell who it was without climbing up and looking. She hoped it wasn’t Lawrence.

Ondine transformed her tail into legs and climbed up the side of the ship. She peeked over the edge of the railing. Lawrence lay there on the deck, bruised and weeping. Three sailors stood over him, menacingly.

“I haven’t anything to give you,” Lawrence said, his voice choked with tears.

“That pretty accent and you haven’t any money?” They laughed.

“Not a farthing,” he said.

“I don’t believe you,” one of them said.

“Oh, certainly you haven’t any money on you,” another said. “But back in England, there must be people who would pay for you.”

“If you can’t pay,” another man said, “you’ll work. You’ll work, or you’ll taste the lash.”

He stepped towards Lawrence, and Ondine hopped over the railing. She raised her arms and the wind rose. The men stepped closer, leering. Her hair whipped around her in the rising wind, almost like she was still underwater, and lightning struck overhead.

“Ondine,” Lawrence whispered.

Lightning struck the man menacing Lawrence, sending him overboard along with the smell of singed hair and clothing. If he was still alive to struggle against drowning, she couldn’t hear it.

She took a step towards the other men, and they backed away, then scattered—much like the clouds. She knelt next to Lawrence and petted his hair.

“What are you?” he asked.

“You imagined me,” she said.

“I do not think so,” he retorted.

“If the sailors give you any trouble,” she said, “tell them you’re under the protection of a sea witch whose mother wears necklaces made out of dead men’s hands.”

Lawrence passed out.

Ondine snorted. She wouldn’t actually make necklaces out of their hands to give to her mother. Hand necklaces had been passé for years.

#

When Lawrence woke up, he was alone on deck with the sun shining down on him. He moved to a shady spot and watched warily for more thieves.

They never came.

When he went down to the mess, men gave him a wide berth. No one seemed to want to risk angering him. Lawrence wasn’t sure whether it was because the sea witch was real or because he was mad. He supposed they weren’t mutually exclusive. But no one suggested he earn his keep for the rest of the voyage.

He was relieved to reach shore anyway. He was lonely on the ship, and if Ondine existed she didn’t come back. He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to come back, either. She was scary.

He stopped at his nasty little flat—the poverty of his situation repelled him—and changed into something decent. Then he headed to Vanessa’s. Vanessa was a youngish widow who adored him. Her hair was just starting to show the faintest bit of gray and she had laugh lines around her eyes. Her husband had been a military man who’d left her alone for long periods of time before his death, so she was used to making her own decisions.

Lawrence knocked on her door. She opened it, and her face lit up. Vanessa said, “I was so worried about you when your ship came back and you didn’t.”

So he came in, and told her the whole story about being thrown overboard after being robbed, and ending up on a desert island and eating crabs. Well. Not the whole story, clearly. He sounded a lot more heroic when Ondine wasn’t in the story. He suspected Vanessa wouldn’t enjoy the parts of the story where he was stranded with a naked woman, even if he’d been a gentleman, and who was he to tell her things she didn’t want to hear?

“My poor darling,” Vanessa said. “I can’t imagine! You were so lucky to be rescued when you were.”

“Yes,” Lawrence said. “I can’t eat crabs for every meal.”

“So resourceful,” Vanessa said, and put an extra biscuit on his plate. “I think you’ve lost weight.”

Vanessa was a good woman. He could love her.

“I thought you’d tired of me,” she said.

“Never,” Lawrence said, and kissed her hand.

Vanessa blushed and asked the maid to bring them more sandwiches. The maid scurried off, and Vanessa withdrew her hand.

Lawrence looked around the sitting room. A lot of books, a lot of knickknacks from her husband’s trips abroad. The furniture was lovely.

This was the life he wanted.

The maid came back with more sandwiches, more than he could eat. He was sorry when it was time to go home to his miserable flat.

There was a lady standing outside his flat. He didn’t recognize her at first because she was dressed as a proper lady, but it was Ondine.

“Milady Ondine!” he said, and bowed. “I tried to keep them from leaving without you . . .”

“I know.” Her clothes were quite expensive. Maybe she had more money than he’d thought. “Are you well, Lawrence?”

He nodded. “What are you, Ondine?”

“You know what I am.” Ondine’s smile was deep, mysterious, like the ocean. And she wore a magnificent string of pearls around her neck.

A sea witch? It was a bit hard to believe, but he’d seen it with his own eyes.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” Ondine asked.

“I haven’t a maid,” Lawrence said.

“I don’t mind a mess,” Ondine said.

He’d meant that she’d have no chaperone. How oddly innocent she was. One would think that a sea witch would be more worldly. Or, he supposed, perhaps not. “Do come in.” He opened the door and held it for her, then led her up the narrow staircase.

He opened the door and held it for her, and she stepped in. It was dusty from his time out at sea, and his furnishings were cheap. He was ashamed of the rough table and chairs, the flimsy bed, the threadbare rug. She looked as out of place there as . . .

As a sea witch.

Well. However much money she might have—and he didn’t even know for a fact that she had as much money as her attire suggested—he certainly didn’t want to marry a sea witch, of all things. Witchcraft was hardly an entrée into respectable society, after all.

“What, precisely, is a sea witch?” he asked.

She just laughed at him.

He leaned over and kissed her hand. Then he moved in closer and kissed her lips. They were soft. Ondine didn’t resist at all.

Lawrence said, “I’m so glad you’re all right.”

She laughed. “I was never in any danger.”

That’s what she thought. Those pearls would buy a fine wedding ring for Vanessa.

#

In ancient times she’d taken mortal lovers. She’d watched them grow old. Usually they were lovers for a night only. Sometimes, they’d tend her shrine.

But the ones she’d rescued were always special, somehow. Especially when they knew it. They were usually the most devoted, the best shrine keepers, the most passionate lovers.

Lawrence kissed her again, and she straddled his lap, placed her hands on either side of his face, and kissed him back. He was hers. Her creature. She’d pulled him out of the sea and from certain death, after all. And then she’d saved him from the sailors. Surely, having saved his life twice, it was hers.

Lawrence moaned, and his hands slid up her bodice and pulled her closer. Yes. She’d keep him, take him to the shore and build him a nice house there. “Do you know how to help a lady dress, Lawrence?” she asked.

He nodded, and she turned so he could unlace her dress. It was an epic undertaking; she really didn’t care for the fashions of the age. Finally, she was as naked as she had been when she’d first arrived on the island.

Lawrence’s eyes were hungry. His breath was rough. She reached over and pulled off his jacket, then started to unbutton his shirt. His undressing, while nowhere near as epic as hers, was still quite the project. He really had lovely olive skin though—he must have gotten that from his mother.

He pulled her close and kissed her, his erection pressing into her thigh. They fell back on the bed together, and she climbed on top and straddled him. He was everything she’d hoped, strong and passionate. They ended up making love three times. The third time Ondine called him a satyr, which was saying something because she knew satyrs. They were good lovers, too—a bit rough, perhaps. She preferred humans. They had a sensitive quality to them.

They slept, finally. She fell asleep with her arms around him, musing to herself how she’d set him up in a little house in Napoli or Capri, and he’d want for nothing. All of the ocean’s wealth was at her command, after all. He snored a little, but she didn’t mind. He looked so sweet and vulnerable in her arms, his hair adorably mussed and his long lashes flickering slightly from time to time. He’d grow old, of course, but that’s what mortals did.

When she woke up, he was gone. She thought he might have gone out to bring them something to eat, but when he didn’t return after a few hours she stood up and looked around the flat. There were love letters from someone named Vanessa, and some textbooks, and a meager set of clothes. So Ondine dressed herself. It took quite a long while to dress, and even longer to realize that she couldn’t find her pearls.

Surely Lawrence wouldn’t steal from her, would he?

She closed her eyes and pictured her pearls. Ondine could almost place them on a map—three streets down, turn right, second door on the left. Bastard! She could hear thunderclouds rumbling outside.

She stuffed one of Vanessa’s love letters into her reticule and walked to the place where her pearls were. It was a jeweler, an odd little white-haired man.

“Where did you get those pearls?” she asked. “They’re lovely.”

“An Italian youth brought them in,” he said. “Traded them for some cash and an emerald ring. Said he was getting married.”

What kind of fool was Lawrence? He’d seen what she was capable of. She could strike him with lightning. She could suck the air right out of his lungs. She could make him burst into flames. If he’d asked her for the pearls, she would have given them to him. She would have given him anything.

Lightning struck outside the shop, and rain started to pour down. She didn’t care.

Ondine went down to the shore and murmured a spell, and shipwreck gold washed up on the beach. She filled her purse to overflowing with it and took it back to the jeweler, who was delighted to return her pearls and give her modern money for the rest of it. She told him that it belonged to her father, which she supposed was true. Then she hired out a horse and carriage to take her to the address on the letter.

It wasn’t a palace or anything, but it was a perfectly respectable house with a perfectly respectable garden. The driver helped her out of the carriage. As she approached the door, she could see Lawrence in the window, drinking tea and smiling. A perfectly respectable maid came out of the house and shook out a throw rug.

The maid muttered, “It’s a disgrace! A youth half her age!”

Ondine had no cause to criticize on that count, so she turned back towards the carriage.

The maid asked, “Can I help you, Miss?”

“No, thank you,” Ondine said. “I must have the wrong house.”

#

The jeweler had given him quite the princely sum for the pearls, which more than paid for a lovely engagement ring for Vanessa. The jeweler also promised to take the ring back if she said no, which Lawrence thought was a friendly and sporting touch.

So he headed off to Vanessa’s, ring in pocket. She’d set him up nicely as a respectable gentleman. His life as a person of no consequence was over. He proposed to her on his knee in her parlor, and she wept tears of joy and said yes. They discussed whether they wanted a big wedding, and decided on something small and intimate. He suspected she didn’t want to give her family time to talk her out of it, which was quite clever of her, really.

The wedding was small, mainly attended by his father and Vanessa’s sister. His father scowled when introduced to Vanessa, scowled at the minister, and scowled at him. Lawrence didn’t care. His father would come around soon enough, in the face of his new money and title. Vanessa’s sister said it was lovely to meet him, but she clearly didn’t mean it.

As the minister said, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony,” Lawrence saw a woman wearing black, who slipped in the back. She was wearing a veil, like a widow, but the hair stood up on the back of Lawrence’s neck.

She was also wearing a magnificent set of pearls.

As the ceremony continued, Lawrence felt like there was a rock in his stomach. He didn’t know why Ondine would be there, but he couldn’t imagine it was for any positive reason.

Finally, the minister said, “If anyone present knows of any reason why this man and this woman should not be joined in holy wedlock, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Ondine stood. She said, “This man is a thief.”

“Please don’t,” Lawrence said.

“I would have given you anything you wanted,” Ondine said. “I would have given you the pearls if you’d asked me for them. I have more.”

“You can’t give me what I want,” Lawrence said.

He thought he saw Vanessa preen next to him out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t dare take his eyes off Ondine. Let Vanessa think whatever she wanted, as long as she still married him.

Ondine removed the veil, and her hair spilled out and cascaded down to her waist. She wore pearls in it, and what looked like seaweed. “What are you, Lawrence?” A stiff breeze rushed up the aisles, lifting her hair.

Lawrence realized that there was nothing he could say that would mean anything to Ondine. She wouldn’t understand. She was too innocent, too unworldly. She didn’t understand men, particularly men of a certain quality, or polite society. She really was a creature completely outside civilization.

“What are you?” he asked Ondine.

“You know what I am,” she said. Thunder sounded outside.

“What’s happening?” Vanessa asked. “Who is this woman?”

“You look so innocent asleep,” Ondine said. She was paler than he remembered, and her hair looked almost damp. “You fooled me.”

He didn’t have an answer for that.

“If you ever sleep again, you’ll die,” Ondine said, and lightning struck so close that his hair literally stood on end. Then she turned and walked away.

Vanessa burst into tears and ran out of the church.

He chased Vanessa out the door. “Wait!”

“Clearly, your morals are as loose as your father’s,” Vanessa said. “I have no desire to marry a libertine.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “What manner of man are you, Lawrence?”

He didn’t have an answer for that, either.

#

Ondine went home, to the ocean, where she belonged. Where she had a tail instead of legs. Where things made sense. To her father, old and bearded and wise, and full of good sense.

“I didn’t think I needed to warn you about mortals again,” he said.

Later, he said, “I went up on land to look for him.”

Ondine scowled.

“I didn’t speak to him.” He smiled, a dark wicked smile. His blue eyes flickered amusement from behind his heavy silver eyebrows. “He looked tired.”

She would never understand mortals and what they had become. Never.

And yet, she knew instantly when Lawrence had thrown himself overboard. Mouth below the waterline, arms pressing the body up out of the water for a breath. He didn’t cry out for help, but they never did. Breathing took precedence. He didn’t kick, didn’t thrash, just kept pushing his body upwards.

She lifted him out of the water. He looked worn and haggard.

“Stupid mortal,” Ondine said. “You don’t have to drown yourself to die. You only have to fall asleep.”

Lawrence burst into tears, like a spoiled toddler. “I’m afraid.”

She felt a flicker of pity despite her anger. He was such a child. She supposed he was really very young.

“Please,” he said. “Please. Lift the curse. For pity’s sake, please. I’ll do anything you want.”

She could take him to Capri, she supposed. Ironic, considering how Ondine had wanted to set him up in a villa here. Not that she wanted that any more.

“What do you want from me?” he asked. “I can’t give you your pearls back. The jeweler said you already had them.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring. Vanessa’s ring. “Take it.” His voice turned accusing. “It’s not like I have any further use for it. You’ve seen to that.”

Ondine let go of Lawrence, and he slipped beneath the waves. Peacefully, like he was falling asleep.

THE END

Katherine Mankiller lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with a bunch of cats. Her short fiction has appeared in Electric Velocipede, Escape Pod, and ChiZine. When she’s not writing, she’s performing amazing feats of Geek-Fu. Over the years, she’s asked that her business cards read everything from “Alpha Bitch” through “Queen of Awesomeness” to “Zen Master”—to no avail. Her greatest ambition is to rule the world.

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  1. » New story available! and bonus snippets. Katherine Mankiller

    […] the first:  My story “Ondine’s Curse” is available in the latest (last, alas) issue of Electric Velocipede.  The Kindle version […]

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